The privileged politico

UPDATE: [January 2011] After much umming and erring about whether to resurrect this blog from London, I’ve decided that I am too far away from China to be writing about it. But I will be blogging again when I’m back in the Orient, before too long a wait …

First things first: a couple of links. Here you can read my column in this month’s issue of Prospect magazine, on the influx of foreign students who - like me - go to Beijing to learn Mandarin. While here you can see my photo essay on ‘young China’ - the theme of this blog - for the China Beat. I took those pictures over the two years I lived and travelled in China.

“Past tense!” I hear you cry. “-ed?” Yes, I’m writing from London, where I will be based for two years before returning East. I thought I wouldn’t leave Beijing for love nor money, but one of those reasons is indeed why I’m back in Britain (you can guess which).


Next, here is where we leave the six young Chinese who I’ve been following on this blog - stories from the generation that will change China.

Ben is going strong in his online clothes shop. His bedroom business has expanded from just him and a leaky roof to a staff of three and booming sales. He still can’t pronounce the word ‘entrepreneur’.

Leonidas is back on “my island”, as he calls it, off the coast of Shanghai. “No TV, no internet, no noise, no traffic jam,” he writes me. A perfect summer break before his final year at Peking University.

Marie has finally ended her torturous job hunt, choosing a teaching position in Beijing. But she still dreams of working in Hong Kong, travelling to Japan, studying in America - depending on the day.

Matilda has just finished her novel, Summer Fruit in Autumn. She posted in online, and got some encouraging comments from Chinese netizens. She still doesn’t know what to do with her life, though.

Tony will be joining me in England next academic year. He has an offer from Cambridge and a provisional offer from Oxford, to read an MPhil in International Relations. I hope to see him before long.

William dropped out of university for the second time last spring. His lifeless subject and doctrine-heavy classes simply weren’t for him. He’s now decided to give his all to environmental activism.


Finally, a few quick stats and thanks. I launched this blog on the final day of the Beijing Olympics, August 24th 2008. Since then, I’ve had over 15,000 unique visitors. And 40,000 page views. My most read posts include a video interview with Chris Patten, commentary on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, a translation of a wronged student’s petition, and my essay in Chinese on China’s ‘New Youth’.

My thanks go first to all my friends, most of all to those I follow here, who have helped me understand the nuanced and changing story of young Chinese in a new China. In the English language Chinese ‘blogosphere’, an especial thanks to: Jeff, Kate and Maura at the China Beat; Jeremy and Joel at Danwei; Elliot at CNReviews; Charlie at China Geeks; Evan Osnos at The New Yorker. And everyone else!

Adieu to 六 (liu - six). Cheers, Alec

Jetlag and sleep deprivation are both powerful forces of slumber, but neither could make me sleep through the combination on lantern festival of firecrackers marking the 15th day of the new year, and my cat’s equally loud excitement at my return to Beijing. (My picture of this - the lantern festival, that is - up on China Beat tomorrow today.)

Now I’m back in class, and as before I will fill the cracks in my wall of homework with blogging on the Chinese youth on and around the campuses of Peking and Tsinghua universities - following six stories from the generation that will change China.

It seems an appropriate preface on both study and blogging fronts to translate an essay I read recently in my Chinese textbook: “University students’ sense of responsibility” (大学生的责任感), a 1978 essay by Zhang Yifan, taken from Man and Society (人与社会) magazine.

I’m doing this, to be clear from the outset, because I think it’s a load of utter tosh.

Here’s Zhang’s opening (after a lame apology that his isn’t an “objective” study):

I find that at present many university students lack a sense of responsibility, can’t be certain of their own part to play in society, and consequently lack the strength to make progress.

For the majority of students, he goes on, their “attitude to study is for the most part extremely passive”; those with a positive study attitude are truly rare (凤毛麟角 - as rare as a phoenix feather or unicorn horn). Or to be specific:

They study not because of their own interest, nor to improve themselves, but only to get academic credit and eventually a diploma … their only concern is to find a relatively good career.

That’s a criticism of Chinese students by older generations (this is an assumption - I think a pretty safe one - that Zhang is older) that I also hear today. Students are irresponsible: they don’t care about their studies, they only think about their CV.

That may be well and true for many (and not only in China, by the way). But can we stick with ‘many’, in that case, and leave the pronoun ‘they’ out of it? Please don’t go moaning about the ‘quality’ of Chinese students (their suzhi 素质 - a word I’ve never liked), as Zhang does, as if you can sum up a generation in an adjective.

What Zhang does have going for his diatribe is that the system gets an earful too:

education is almost entirely aimed at [getting students through] the two narrow doors of gaokao and zhongkao [middle and high school exams].

The education students receive before college, Zhang writes, is all about ‘cramming’ (填鸭式 - a wonderful phrase, literally ‘force-feeding a duck’). And the prevailing atmosphere is of 升学主义 - a more clumsy to translate ‘philosophy of advancing up the education ladder’. Zhang goes on:

Once they’ve gotten into university, there’s no need for another gaokao, all their pressure suddenly eases, and the only goal which attracted them before and encouraged their effort disappears with it.

Students are equally mindless, we gather, when they come out of college:

To many graduates who intend to continue studying abroad, I ask them what their career aims are? Why are they taking graduate study abroad? The majority are at a loss, they don’t know how to answer, they only know they must get a PhD or master’s degree and then think again.

Again, there’s a grain of truth in this. When I showed Tony this essay, he said that the above rings a bell when it comes to many of his classmates. But Tony himself is an example of a soon-to-graduate student with a very clear goal for study abroad. In my experience (albeit at two elite universities), there are as many exceptions as ‘rules’. And … dare I say it … are young people not allowed to be uncertain about their future?

My objection to Zhang isn’t that he’s all wrong: it’s that it’s all too easy to lump Chinese youth into one category, blaming the suzhi of “irresponsible” students without any sympathy, and with only a cursory look at the root education environment. (This said, Zhang does blame schools for neglecting moral education - deyu 德育 - and family heads for only wanting their kids to get into a famous school.)

For me, the final straw was this bitter beauty of a whine:

[Students are] extremely self-centered. You only need to observe carefully, and it isn’t hard to discover that among those chatting loudly in public places, or cutting queues, many are university students. … [they] constantly raise requests, but infrequently express gratitude. … [they] are only concerned with their own interests, and don’t know how to respect and thank others.

Quite frankly, when I read that shopping-list of complaints, my mind leapt to older generations of Chinese: the loud businessman with his mobile on the subway, the taxi-driver spitting out the window, that kind of thing. I also think of the film Grumpy Old Men, and the phrase “kids these days…”. I guess: each to his own stereotype.

Of course, this post is a little spurious: it’s a 1978 essay, after all. (Which begs the question: on what basis what Zhang writing this thing, anyway? Universities only just opened again in 1978, after the college wastelands of the Cultural Revolution.)

So forgive me for falling into the same trap as Zhang did, and mouthing off. But I hear it all too often: Chinese students today only care about themselves. That’s why I enjoyed this reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun - or at least that past generations grumbling about the irresponsible youth of today certainly isn’t.

Exhibit A: here’s a member of more-or-less exactly the generation Zhang is talking about - also, to polish off the irony, surnamed Zhang - who has grown up only to complain in turn about the next generation (for those behind the firewall: Zhang Shihe, 56, quoted calling students today “the stupid generation”), thirty years on.

Brain drain, brain gain

I’ve written before about the clogging of China’s brain drain - or to be more accurate with my metaphor, the increasing volumes of water which return to the basin after a few years in the plumbing. (If, that is, you accept the comparison of the best Western Universities with a sewer.) Leonidas’ plan - see the link - is in my eyes typical of the brightest young Chinese, increasingly determined to be ‘returning turtles’ - a cute Chinese phrase for overseas students who flap their way back home.

The other lunch, noodles in Tsinghua with Tony, I was reminded of this topic as we discussed his own applications to Oxford, Cambridge and LSE. Touch wood, Tony will be in the UK from next autumn (this is his final year at Beida), beginning an MPhil in International relations, with the proposed thesis topic Changes in European Perception of China (1793-1911) - A comparative study on Lord Macartney, Karl Marx and Sir Robert Hart (”I would examine the hypothesis that there is a causal relationship between the perceptual shift and the policy shift within Europe”).

Indeed, every bowl of noodles I slurp with Tony - me doing the slurping - he never fails to impress me with some arcane nugget of Western learning. (Always Western: I’ve yet to hear him cite an ancient Chinese thought, for all of his Robert Harts). On top of this, I’ve yet to catch him out as uninformed on current affairs or history; he is a networker if I’ve ever seen one; and he is always perfectly turned out. (While for me, the prospect of cramming a new word or two often trumps a morning shave). In short, if he gets in, England’s gain will most definitely be China’s loss. But, like Leonidas, Tony plans to come back to China after (again, fingers crossed) his PhD.

So why does he want to go? Put most simply, Oxbridge is a big step up from China’s top universities (Beihua?), and given his research interests, being in Europe will help. But he highlighted for me other key reasons why his classmates want to study in the West too. One is peer pressure: for China’s brightest, it’s been ‘the thing to do’ for quite a while (ever since the Qing dynasty, a historian might argue). Another is, more obviously, the prospect of a shiny CV, and money crisp in hand. And this more so than learning for learning’s sake; a criticism of China’s youth that I’ll wager any Chinese over forty will echo to you if you ask them.

And why does he want to come back? Again, a chief reason is deceptively simple: it’s alienating to live in a different culture. China is his motherland. England isn’t. (I can’t resist interjecting here this little link to a wonderful quote by Jack London, about living in a culture not one’s own, which Granite Studio ‘reposts’). Another factor: Tony feels that if he’s away from China for too long, “I might lose touch with minor changes in the Chinese way of thinking”. On top of those, ever-present, are more material concerns: there simply seem to be more appealing job opportunities for skilled Chinese in China than there are anywhere else.

But what of that buzzword fourth reason: turtles returning to ‘contribute’ to China? Tony tells me a telling titbit: a government slogan aimed at students going overseas used to read 回国服务 (hui guo fuwu … return to your country, to serve); now it reads 为国服务 (wei guo fuwu … serve [for] your country). Well, Tony hopes to serve too. Academic as his interests are, in his personal statement to Oxford he wrote - with intriguing vagueness - of his desire to also be a “practitioner in the future, to promote effective communication between China and Europe”. But he is cynical as to how effective a returning turtle’s contribution can actually be. For one, it’s “too hopeless” to think of changing *all *China - this is why, he tells me, many of his friends hope to return to China to make a difference on a local level, most commonly their hometown (this is fascinating, I think).

And next, Tony tells me, it’s very difficult it is to get into China’s Foreign Ministry if you studied abroad, as these applicants “need investigation” and the powers that be don’t want to expend resources on this. (Yes, yes, Deng Xiaoping went to Paris, don’t nitpick.) Lowering his voice out of embarrasment and not stealth, Tony adds at this point that this is one reason why the “quality of Chinese diplomats is not so good”.

Besides, what is it precisely that these turtles learn overseas? I remember an English friend, Peter Martin, whose professor at Beida (he was taught by Pan Wei, but I don’t recall if this particular professor was Pan Wei) would complain to his foreign students about his Chinese wards who went to America to study … Chinese politics. Study American politics in America! this professor would cry. And then come back and apply that knowledge. Don’t go to Mars to study Earth. Tony’s reply to this is fair enough: the English language discourse and academic understanding of China is dominated by the “Western perspective”, and “it needs more Chinese voices”.

Nethertheless, the question still floats: do returning turtles really return with a precious load of new knowledge balanced on their shells? Or do they spend their time in the West speaking Chinese with other turtles, studying their own country and not the country they are in, and coming back full of new food but not necessarily a new perspective?

This by no means my opinion, simply food for thought. I hope it’s flavoursome, now that we’ve all digested our Christmas pudding. Happy new year, and … at the risk of being labelled an ‘infrequently updated blog’ … my next post will be next decade.

Tony was telling me the other day some thoughts he and his classmates at Peking University have been having about China’s role outside of China. He’s been kind enough to write them up as a guest post for Six.


Right after the National Holidays, I launched and chaired one of the weekly student seminars in Beida, entitled “Becoming a responsible stakeholder? – a Chinese perspective”. Four years ago, when Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick first developed such a concept as a response to China’s “peaceful rise”, the Chinese were confused. Simply put, there is no exact translation of the word “stakeholder” in our language and the term is not widely used among the Chinese youth. Though my peers may be unfamiliar with this concept, the past four years has made almost all of us realise China’s rising global impact, ranging from UN peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation, and from expanding global markets to managing the economic crisis.

But the question is always there. A recent article in the Economist raised the issue again by explicitly pointing out that “China’s own world view has failed to keep pace with its growing weight. It is a big power with a medium-power mindset, and a small-power chip on its shoulder.” To many Chinese who care passionately about our national image, such a comment is unacceptable. “The Western list that outlines the requirements in becoming a responsible stakeholder has gone too far”, one friend said to me before the discussion.

Then how to define China’s responsibility? What are the limits of it? After several years of silence from the Chinese side, it is time to hear some responses from Beida students. From time to time, the university has played a key role in the country’s ideological shifts; and to date, an unsure China is witnessing changes in all walks of life.

If Beida students are not so familiar with Robert Zoellick or the English term “stakeholder”, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a general expectation for China’s future. During the seminar, a large number of students expressed that China needs to step out and take more global responsibilities. Western countries want China to not only accept and benefit the contemporary world system but also to sustain and nurture it. “Of course such an idea was made according to their own interests, but the identity as a responsible stakeholder is also good for our national development,” commented by a junior student from the School of International Studies. It seems undeniable that the past thirty years has helped China become a contributor to, rather than a spoiler of, the international system built mainly by Western countries. And the reasons which led to that change were decided by many students as simply being “our rational choice based on national interests”. Such interests include alleviating counterbalances against China’s rise and creating a proper regional and international environment for domestic development. This is almost the same as what Mr. Zoellick said in his article in 2005.

Some students further pointed out that China can hardly become a stakeholder if it keeps on pursuing narrow interests in a self-centered way. When students heard that some Party officials defined China’s major foreign policy concerns as “Three NOs” (no arms sale to Taiwan, no meetings with the Dalai Lama and no meetings with Rebia Kadeer), they claimed that the country’s mindset is still not broad enough and it fails to pay enough attention to issues such as global climate change, energy security and anti-terrorism. Some of them also brought up China’s sensitivity towards sovereignty and Chinese citizens’ general distrust of the international system.

However, this is not to say that Beida students are allured by the US and conform to the American definition of a responsible stakeholder. When I moved on and raised the question “should China keep a tacit attitude and accept the American definition”, the answers were diversified. A few participants held the view that by accepting it, China will have to meet the Western criteria and thus be restricted by those countries. “While China needs to develop a broader mindset to become more responsible in global environmental protection and regional security, we have our own pursuits derived from China’s global identity and cultural tradition. The US requires China to impose sanctions on DPRK, Iran and Sudan. It runs against our ways of behavior, our principle of non-intervention, and even the Chinese character,” claimed one student. When I asked him whether non-intervention has become an obstacle for China’s growing global influence, he said it is a principle written in the UN Charter and a diplomatic tradition of PRC. “We should not abandon it, but there could be many flexible approaches and adjustments.”

To my surprise, the issue of Darfur and Iran were seldom mentioned on the floor. They seemed “too far away” from the students as well as normal Chinese citizens. But it was domestic political reform and promoting democracy that raised heated discussion in the end. Mr. Zoellick once made the link between China’s political reform and the stability of the international system directly to Congress. He said that if China cannot deal with its problems democratically, its domestic issues will affect the sustainability of the entire international system. The Beida discussion was less system-oriented than focusing on the future of China. Whereas our participants were not human rights or political activists, they were well aware that these issues are in both individual and national interests. One of the speakers mentioned that “China should be more transparent in human rights issues. The country is now undergoing vast changes, a situation similar to the German Empire in late 1800s, when nationalism and a civil society were on the rise, imposing stronger influence on the government. However, we must bear in mind the history of great powers. Those that had achieved economic development but failed to alleviate domestic tensions were doomed to vanish. A more democratic China will be a healthier China and that is in our own interests.”

After all these discussions, how to describe the way Chinese looks at the word “responsible”? I remember in 2007, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had a debate. At that time, the Americans said China will define responsible stakeholder in terms of promoting multilateralism, taking an internationally democratic approach and following international consensus. In contrast, the Beida students’ points of view may be summarised as follows: in becoming a global stakeholder, China should have a broader pursuit of its national interests; it should be more closely knitted with the international community; meanwhile, a more responsible China means to preserve Chinese traditions and the national character. If I may add one more thing at the end, I was assured again by the discussion that China wants to shape the world by changing itself. Slowly but steadily, the young generation of Chinese are now motivating the country to change and answering the question “whither China?”.

Happy Mooncake day all … how fast these festivals come and go. The PRC’s 60th birthday was only two days ago and already the nation has moved onto the excessive gifting of odd-tasting pastry. There’s probably a relevant Chinese saying which I could quote here - but I won’t.

On national day, I took a morning bus  (on gloriously empty streets) to Peking University or ‘Beida’ to watch the televised celebrations with students. If you’re after the parade itself, have a look at this wonderful 4 minute time-lapse and slow-mo version by Dan Chung of the Guardian.

As a Brit I have a inborn loathing of jingoism, which was rife in the parade itself. Patriotism is OK, however, and it was this that the Beida students were displaying - more than I had ever seen them show, including in the aftermath of a successful Olympics (the ping pong was all in Beida’s gym).

Below I’ll split up what I witnessed into a few liberally captioned photos. First, I asked each of the six characters I follow on this blog what they were doing and how they felt on this big day (as we know, any number like ‘6′ or 60′ is auspicious in China, so this national day was particulary special).

Tony … was watching the parade with me. He’d been one of the school kids in the 1999 fifty year anniversary parade, and seemed a little cynical of the eerily similar pomp and circumstance this time around. As ever he took pleasure in pointing out the politically significant bits, like how outside the limelight Xi Jinping was in the whole affair - a potential sign of his guessed-at leadership of China from 2012 being postponed, possibly forever.

Leonidas … got into Beida’s auditorium for the showing there (more below). When I then met up with him for noodles, he was clutching a Chinese flag and said he was almost moved to tears by the parade. This from a guy who’s head, in my experience, generally tends to be off in the clouds of classical Chinese literature more than it is on the ground of contemporary China.

Marie … was watching the internet stream in her dorm with her flatmates - one of whom was still sleeping from all the homework she was up late last night doing, even in this week-long national holiday. Earlier, I’d read a corny line in a Chinese paper: “today is your birthday too”. I’d sent Marie a text jokingly asking if this was true. I felt bad at my whimsy when she seriously replied “yes, today is also like my birthday”.

Matilda … was at a friend’s wedding, who’d evidently chosen this day as a lucky one to start a marriage on (modern China: unified until death do us part?). She texted me: “China is five thousand years old, new China is sixty years old. Let’s together wish new China prosperity!”

William … reinforced the message: “today is new China’s birthday”. New China (xin zhongguo) is a term much bandied about, claimed by the May Fourth movement as well as Sun Yatsen or the CCP (potentially by the reform and opening up era too). Normally, I’m never quite sure ‘new China’ is whose. Today, for young Chinese, new China was all Hu’s.

[groan] And finally,

Ben … was sleeping in, but with the TV on in the background.

Now for the day itself:

This guy far-right had sold forty or so flags by 9am. Behind them, Beida students line up for the screening of the parade on the big cinema screen in campus. They’d got their free tickets three days ago by queuing for (hear-say alert!) nearly 2km. Leonidas told me all of the students at this screening  stood up to give Hu Jintao an ovation.

Tony and I most certainly did not queue for 2km, and so we watched the event in a neighbouring canteen - on a decidedly inferior screen with a fuzzy top-left panel which made Jiang Zemin look like a gremlin. There was a big laugh when Hu smiled upon seeing the troupe of female soldiers in high red skirts goose-step by. I got the impression here that most students were enjoying the fun of a big parade more than being overwhelmed with love of their country. And when the canteen started serving food - an hour before the parade was over - everyone was suddenly much more interested in lunch.

Zhongguo jiayou! Go China! If this were England, by the way, this picture could only mean one thing: these students had been watching a football or rugby game, not a military parade.

A contingent of Beida students took part in the parade, wafting symbolic pink wind fans (you can see them at 3:10 in the video I link to near the top of this post). Here they are, having been shipped back to their campus by giant buses, still pumped - despite having got out of bed at 2:30am to head down to Tiananmen square, and after a summer of compulsory training sessions two or three times a week.

Tony, recently back from a fortnight in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, kindly wrote this post for Six on ethnic tensions in China. He begins with Tibet, but it isn’t hard to see the relevance of his conclusions to the current situation in Xinjiang.


“It is not easy to comment on Tibet. Even after a two-week trip there, I still have quite limited knowledge about the whole area. During the trip, I kept asking myself the same question: ‘how to describe the relationship between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans’. It seems that we are living in two worlds. Though most of the Tibetans I came across were kind and honest, I still felt a little bit uneasy to discuss that sensitive issue with them. However, on the Han Chinese side, I was continuously intrigued by the fact that many of them have stereotypes and prejudices when talking about Tibetans.

Take a story that happened on our train ride for example. During lunch time, several young Chinese visitors were chatting with Tibetan students who were studying in Beijing. The former asked the latter what they could eat on campus. The Tibetan girl replied with laughter, “Everyone we come across tends to think that Tibetans only eat zanba. As a matter of fact, we had the same meals as Han Chinese students do in Beijing.” Then the conversation goes on from college life to Linkin Park, with even more confusing looks on our Chinese visitors’ faces.

Similar scenarios came up during our trip to Shigatse, where we had a chance to visit typical local residences. On the way back, many travelers expressed that the Tibetan living style was primitive and their religious beliefs superstitious. What annoys me slightly was that when Han Chinese travelers were talking to local citizens, they kept asking questions such as how much money they made and, to some extent, judged all things in a sense of material wealth. As a Chinese, I think we have a better understanding than the Americans that Tibet is not a Shangri-la paradise. However, instead of romanticizing Tibet, it seems that many Han Chinese, at least some visitors, lack basic respect for the Tibetan culture and religion.

I am not sure how the Tibetans perceive the Han Chinese or how to define the relations of the two ethnic groups in China. Yet it is certain that for almost every state, such racial problems are taken as a formidable challenge. If we look back to the late 1980s, it is the ethnic problems within the Soviet Union that led the Chinese government to seriously judge its own domestic situation. After the collapse of the USSR, Chinese Party leaders drew the conclusion that nationalism and separation activities would be on the rise around the globe. One of the lessons learned by the ruling officials at that time was that ethnic disunity is fatal to the survival of the party. And the CPC thereafter took all efforts to avoid repeating the same mistakes of the USSR.

It is necessary to acknowledge the vitality of national and ethnic solidarity. But I am afraid such principle has gone too far in contemporary China. Instead of frankly pointing out the tensions between racial groups and the flaws in our ethnic policy, the ruling elites, from time to time, blamed ‘evil external forces’ for crimes. Admittedly, various international actors were partly responsible for the accidents. However, we should not overlook the severe flaws and obvious weaknesses within China’s domestic ethnic relations. Acknowledging these problems and having a transparent investigation of why someone committed an act of violence should not be condemned as unpatriotic. After all, it is a formidable task we have to undertake so as to prevent the situation from worsening.

In a nutshell, since Tibet and other ethnic problems have become the forefront of the Sino-Western conflict, one possible solution to avoid miscalculation is to establish a well-managed channel for China and Western countries, thus letting secret talk become open dialogue. Instead of helplessly looking at the escalation of international conflicts, this should be a cost-effective way to let both sides understand the real situation and help our Western counterparts see what might or might not work in China when tackling its ethnic problems.”


Update: Over at CNReviews, Kai Pan dissects Tony’s post … impressed with his observations but in the end disappointed at his seeming “too preoccupied with how China looks in Westerners’ eyes (China’s “face”)”.

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